Last week was “register in Tokyo, Japan” week. One of those actions; get a license. It is times like this where I am very happy to be a Canadian and feel bad for my American friends.

If you are Canadian (or one of a few other nationalities; UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Luxembourg, Norway … and a bunch of others) it is a relatively simple but bureaucratic process. You go to JAF (Japan Auto Federation) and have your license translated then head to the license bureau. You get in the international line, go through a few stations, have your picture taken, do an eye test and exit the license bureau 3-5 hours later. We were smart and arrived as the doors opened and were number 2 and 3 in line. Had we arrived an hour later, I think we would have been 5 hours.

We could have waited a year had I taken the time to get an international drivers license at CAA. We skipped the process and went straight for the license with a “get it out of the way” mentality.

If you are American it is dramatically different. You have to go through a full certification process which includes a written exam (easy) and a driving exam (not so easy). In speaking with a local Canadian, he mentioned an American friend who has failed 7 times as it is very rigorous and the instructor speaks zero English. Therefore you need to know the basics of the language (straight, left, right, etc.) and deal with the notorious Japanese driving instructor reputation built on an insane attention to detail. You better be turning your head to check the blind spot at an exact 45 degree angle or you are failing. It sounds like the same thing we heard from our American friends in the UK.

What I never understood is why this is the case; is it some type of anti-American persecution?  I finally found the answer; the US government is unable to negotiate a reciprocal treaty with countries like Japan and the UK as the US states do not have a uniform agreement on driving license policy that governs all of the states. The downside of their independent states. Oh yes, and one other element; the US is worse to foreigners. If you move to the US you can only use your international permit for a month (not a year) and then have to go through all of the same driving tests and hoops; what comes around goes around I guess.

That being said, there are strategies. A colleague mentioned that he turned the tables on his Japanese instructor and the attention to detail by following the rules to the letter of the law. Before starting the test he went through an exhaustive pre-driving checklist; lights, checking the seatbelts, tire pressure and on and on, to the exasperation of the instructor who kept telling him to go. He refused stating that “the safety of this car and all passengers is my responsibility and I need to make sure it is safe”. He then refused to get out of the car until the instructor had confirmed that he passed (Japanese do not like confrontation). On the 3rd or 4th refusal to get out of the car the instructor finally said “You passed – out”.

Good strategy (LOL).


  1. i was told it’s because Japan wants traffic accident information from the states, but since it is only gathered by each state, not nationally. So they make us go through the testing procedure. Which first starts by having your driver’s license translated by JAF (for 3,000yen), then filling out some other documents. And finally you have to prove you’ve been in Japan for more than three months with the US license… it’s all a little wierd, and a real pain in the ass…!!! (I was lucky and only failed the driving part once!… every other US license holder there had failed at least 4 or 5 times!)

    • Then you are the lucky one. That being said, I forgot to mention that step. I had to go to JAF and do the same thing the day before. A royal pain. Now go buy a car, and it will all seem simple ….

  2. I used an “agent” that handled the process of converting my American license to Japanese, it does take 2 visits, but much less time each one. The first day is the registration and basic written test. The agent told me to bring a book and have a seat while she stood in all the lines, brought the paperwork for me to sign, even told me what to say during the eye test (hidari, ue, etc). The second day was the road test and she wasn’t allowed in the car, but she did hand me a paper before that described in explicit detail everything that would happen during the test, including what the instructor would say and when he would say it. I passed on the 1st try. I later found out that agents have a 99% pass rate on the 1st try, apparently the JAF thinks that those with agents must know what they are doing. It wasn’t cheap, but made getting a license painless. The hardest part was heading down to the driving center as it was way out of the way.

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